I’ve heard talk about culture shock many times in the past. I don’t think I ever understood why it happened, though, or why people didn’t just get over the “shock” of being in a new culture and place. Shouldn’t it be exciting and fun? Didn’t you want the completely different way of life?
The answer is yes. Yes, you wanted this, and yes, it’s exciting and fun. For a while, at least. To be honest, and maybe a little scientific too, there are actually multiple stages to culture shock. The first of these phases is feeling that everything is new, interesting, and exciting. I identified with this for a short two weeks during the first month of my time in Ecuador. I was intrigued by the different people and delighted by the array of new things to do and places to see. However, as it is for most people, that stage didn’t last, and I hit the next couple pretty quickly. Differences become apparent and irritating. Problems occur and frustrations set in, and, You may feel homesick, depressed, and helpless. These ones were a big theme throughout my semester, actually. I’ve struggled with a lot of homesickness – more than the average student does, in my mind. And that has been something I haven’t been able to understand about my own journey. Why me? Studying abroad has been my dream since I began high school. But now that I’m here doing it, it has turned out to be a bigger challenge than I had imagined it would be. The challenges, such as being alone across the world or trying to learn the new language completely, have led to some frustration. But, I think it’s important that students studying around the globe understand that that is normal. They aren’t the only student who has ever missed home before or gone through unexpected difficulties. Knowing that just might help bring them out of that stage a little bit sooner. Once a student learns that they can overcome their homesickness and the other problems, they really do learn that they can conquer anything, anywhere.
When moving on, you develop strategies to cope with difficulties and feelings, make new friends, and learn to adapt to the host culture. What sticks out to me here is the new friends part. I’ve said for months now that my Ecuadorian friends are the best thing I have here. It’s true. They are the ones who have made my experience and with whom I have my greatest memories abroad. Whether those experiences are playing volleyball, climbing up a volcano, grabbing lunch together, or just sitting and talking in Spanish, my new Ecuadorian friends have been the highlight of it all. I’ve adapted, and I’ve learned how to make it work navigating this different culture for 4 months.
You next accept and embrace cultural differences; you see the host as your new home and don’t wish to depart or leave new friends. I can identify with this stage the least. Yes, it is true that I’ve had a hard time dealing with the fact of likely never seeing these people again once I leave. However, I haven’t experienced the part of that fact compelling me to not want to go back to my home country and stay here instead. I know it definitely happens, as I’ve heard a number of other international students here saying how much they want to stay in Ecuador forever and never go home. As for myself, I’ve kind of jumped to the last step on the culture shock timetable and really experienced how you are excited about returning home. This country has been a great host and has taught me more than I’ve ever learned just living in the U.S. But the States are my home, and my heart and mind are looking forward to coming back and being a part of my country and my people again. For many reasons, I don’t think I’m alone in having that sentiment. Once again, it’s just another normal step in this entire process.
After all of that, and as much of a whirlwind that it can be, there is also this thing that exists called “Reverse Culture Shock.” This part comes into play once you’ve stepped foot again on your home soil and return to your life previous to going abroad. I can’t say I am an expert in these stages quite yet, but I just might be in a few weeks! Although I haven’t been there myself yet, the phases go something like this: 1. You may feel frustrated, angry, or lonely because friends and family don’t understand what you experienced and how you changed. You miss the host culture and friends, and may look for ways to return. 2. You gradually adjust to life at home. Things start to seem more normal and routine again, although not exactly the same. 3. You incorporate what you learned and experienced abroad into your new life and career.
This study abroad experience doesn’t end the moment you step off the plane on your flight back home. It continues. It goes with you and will always be a piece of you. The good and the bad – it is all part of how the experience has helped shape you and remake you.